Astronauts atop 750 tons of fuel exploding into 30 million Newtons of thrust shooting a shuttle 10,000 miles above the Earth at 16,000 miles per hour have a singular realization.

They are riding 8 million moving parts manufactured by the lowest bidder.

Much the same lag between perception and reality exists in building and marketing subcompact cars.

The public wants leather-lined, walnut-trimmed, turbo-charged sedans that speak German, deliver 82 miles per gallon, have a top speed of 180-m.p.h and a sticker price around $5,000.

What the public gets is the textured plastic and tweed upholstery of the much less glamorous Ford Escort, Honda Civic, Toyota Tercel, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Mirage, Mazda Protege and Saturn.

They are fine little motor cars and a considerable triumph for designers, stylists and engineers with talent for squeezing $5 worth of performance, looks and reliability from a $2 part.

They are not fast, handsome, exclusive, particularly comfortable, luxurious, large or likely to brighten the pages of Collector Car News in the decades ahead.

But they are reliable, economical, nimble, basic, sensible, easy-to-fix transportation built to just outlive their warranties because subcompacts, like Big Wheels and golf carts, are as close as one gets to the disposable vehicle.

The 1993 Subaru Impreza is aimed squarely at this category.

It misses by several city blocks.

In fairness to Subaru and its disciples, other reviewers have found the Impreza fun, friendly and, finally, a new age departure from its sales position among earth children who recycle bran wrappers to save Biosphere.

We really tried. We forgave Impreza's compromises and purged elitism from our thinking. We accepted that Impreza carries groceries just like a Lexus, will scurry from Los Angeles to San Diego at the same legal rate as a Cadillac and commute for a week on one tank of gas. Which is more than you can say for a Range Rover.

But Impreza--whatever that means, and it certainly isn't a new pasta palace on Melrose--brings absolutely nothing to a very crowded table.

In many areas, it falls terribly short.

The identity kit styling borrows lines and curves, rakes and shapes from every other car in the class, and that makes for a tepid, bland look. In an effort to slay the subcompact nemesis of restricted rear headroom, Subaru has pumped up the rear seat roofline, but it didn't stop in time. Now there is more headroom inside and a round-shouldered profile outside.

Price is the heftiest benefit of settling on any puddle jumper. Honda, Ford, Nissan, Toyota, et al, start their cars just above $8,000. Fully dressed vehicles--including power moon roof and air conditioning--top out around $14,000.

Impreza seems to think it will keep its audience by starting prices at $11,000, increasing to $18,000 for the LS AWD sedan with all the trinkets.

Comparison shoppers will quickly note that $18,000 puts anyone into a Chevrolet Camaro, Jeep Cherokee or one of the new LH cars from Chrysler. Even a screamingly sexy Ford Mustang GT can be owned for less than $17,000.

Subaru seems to have slipped on its own sleight of advertising.

It makes much of Impreza's driver's-side air bag and anti-lock brakes. But the Nissan Sentra, Toyota Tercel and Saturn offer the same. Honda's 1993 Civic evenhasan optional passenger air bag.

Subaru brags of Impreza's "class-leading levels of real world performance." Puh-leeeese. This car doesn't accelerate; it accumulates speed. That translates to 12.5seconds--with automatic transmission--to reach 60 m.p.h. from rest.

Honda's Civic gets to the same point three seconds ahead of Impreza; Ford's Escort is four seconds faster.

The Impreza comes with only one engine, a 16-valve, horizontally opposed four-banger producing 110 horsepower. Honda, Ford, N ssan, Mitsubishi and Saturn offer a variety of power plants up to 140 horsepower.

Impreza may be a sip thriftier than Sentra and Escort in fuel economy--but it is no better than Tercel, Mirage or Protege.

Headroom definitely is superior--but only a half-inch better than Tercel.

Impreza does have more front leg room--but only half an inch more than Civic and Saturn.

Unique to Subaru and the Impreza, however, is the availability of all-wheel drive. It is a super system for keeping tire treads firmly planted on wet and ice, with computer sensing that parcels power to the wheels with the best traction.

There's also a "manual" button on the console-mountedautomatic shifter. With the selector in second or third, it locks out first gear for taming wheelspin when starting in mud or slush.

Back East, all-wheel drive is a big selling point that probably keeps Subaru in business. Out West--except in winter mountains and flatlands during these soggy weeks--it really doesn't add much, except to the overall weight (300 pounds) and cost of the car.

The power-assisted steering is thin oatmeal with a reluctant turn-in and almost zero road feel. That makes quick, precise cornering more a matter of estimate and luck.

The suspension is choppy, a danger to loose dentures and far too stiff for a car of this size. The argument that taut suspension is perfect for better performance handling does not wash here. Performance handling isn't an issue on a subcompact with a top speed of only 95 m.p.h. and acceleration times slower than jury selection.

In addition to puny, that flat-four engine--a holdover from the boxy Subaru Loyale that Impreza will eventually replace--is buzzy and reluctant to deliver power, making it difficult to balance the car by throttle settings.

The body is a tin box in search of several layers of added insulation to soften engine and road noise that intrudes on passenger conversations and laughing at Rush Limbaugh.

The enormous compromise represented by such a car dawns bright when one inserts a key in the trunk and the surrounding metal starts to dimple.

So alongside Civic, Escort, Sentra, Saturn, Tercel, Protege and even the lowly selling Mirage, the Impreza clearly is a car that asks a question:

Why?

1993 Subaru Impreza LS AWD

The Good All-wheel drive traction in a subcompact. Room enough for most heads and legs.

The Bad Lukewarm acceleration from noisy engine. Too expensive for its britches. Mushy steering. Boring styling.

The Ugly Humped rear roofline.

Cost Base: $17,199 As tested, $18,264. Includes all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, driver's-side air bag, air conditioning, CD player, alloy wheels and automatic transmission.

Engine 1.8 liter, 16-valve, four cylinders horizontally opposed and developing 110 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, all-wheel drive, subcompact sedan.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 12.5 seconds, with automatic. Top speed, estimated 95 m.p.h. EPA mileage, city and highway, 26 and 32 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,640 pounds.